Local hiking groups offer members easy-paced, low-tech exercise and something even more precious: the chance to connect with others as well as the world around them.
Despite its name, the Walk on the Wild Side gang is a pretty mild-mannered bunch. Until they spot a pink lady's slipper, that is.
"Look at this one!" said Linda Quammen excitedly. "And here we've got some wild asparagus, and there's some Canada anemone."
Quammen, a plant aficionado, was the leader for this installment of the group's regular Thursday night hikes. The locale was the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis' Wirth Park.
With miles of trails and terrain, the Twin Cities area is home to a surprising variety of hiking and walking clubs, including the 15-year-old Walk on the Wild Side. The Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota swear that the earth touching your soles touches your soul as well, and doesn't require caveman feet. The old-school St. Paul Hiking Club is 90 years young, and some of its members are almost that age, too. And the crime-fighting Lyndale Walkers, who just celebrated their 20th anniversary, wear yellow hats and walk together in shifts, keeping an eye on suspicious activity -- they've been so effective, they barely need to call 911 anymore, but now they're all pals so they keep the tradition going.
In the era of extreme sports, hiking seems like an awfully tame pursuit. But health experts call it an oldie that's still a goodie. A recent Mayo Clinic study found that too much running can actually be bad for some people. Not so with walking.
"Any moderate activity is good for getting your heart rate to an acceptable level without causing any extreme effects to the body," said Dr. Retu Saxena, a cardiologist at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale. "But walking and hiking are two of the better ones because there's less wear and tear on the joints."
Then there's the longevity boost: "If you do moderate activity 30 to 60 minutes a day most days of the week, you add seven years to your life," Saxena said. "That's why you should be walking."
Hiking club members have other reasons for preferring walking to flashier forms of physical activity -- becoming more aware of their environs and finding friends and even romance.
Wild Side coordinator Chris Olson, who moved to the Twin Cities 10 years ago, said that organized walks "give us a stronger sense of where we live. I have found more cool parks and trails with this group than I ever would have found on my own."
George Hunkins, 85, has been walking with the St. Paul Hiking Club -- at 92 years, the oldest club in the Twin Cities -- for nearly half of his life. Even when he ran marathons, he alternated running with hiking.
"Runners tend to look down on walkers, but you see so much when you're walking," he said. "I still discover so many new things in the heart of St. Paul, streets I've never been on, after 46 years."
Over the years, Hunkins has seen romance spark several times along the trail, including for him. He met his second wife through the club and courted her over 12 years of hiking.
The club's June newsletter quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Measure your health by the number of shoes you have worn out." Hunkins probably holds the club record on that one.
Back to nature
Forget the shoes. "Soles in touch with nature" is the motto of the Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota, and they really mean it. Its members walk without shoes or socks, not even those minimalist toe shoes that are a recent fad with runners.
"People usually have one of two reactions when they hear about us," said coordinator Jim Guttmann, an engineering manager from Lakeville. "That sounds cool, or that sounds weird. But being able to feel the ground beneath you adds another sensory dimension to the hike."
The group has 43 members, about a dozen of whom usually show up for each 3-mile hike.
What if you're a literal tenderfoot? "Folks have been skeptical, but the natural trails we stay on aren't too rough on the feet, and as soon as they try it, it feels great. Like with any activity it's possible to overdo it, but you can always bring a pair of shoes if you're concerned your first time."
Some walking groups have a higher purpose than recreation.
The Lyndale Walkers were founded 20 years ago as a crime-prevention neighborhood watch. Donning yellow golf caps, they strolled the neighborhood's streets, often in groups of two or more, and called 911 if they noticed any suspicious activity. The Walkers have always had strict rules against intervening in situations or carrying weapons, but their mere presence chased off a lot of nogoodniks.
"Just being there deters all the behaviors that usually build up to serious incidents," said founding member Luther Krueger, who also works in public safety for the city of Minneapolis. "Loitering drug dealers, once they realize they're being watched, stop dealing and all the crimes connected with drugs dissipate."
Nowadays the group has occasional walkathons, but the schedule is a bit looser than back when the area had more crime. Members connect via an e-mail list, announcing when they'll be walking and asking if anyone wants to join them later at a neighborhood café.
Into the future
The Wild Side is active and organized, arranging 4-mile walks every Thursday for 10 months out of the year. With 140 different routes in its repertoire, the group could go for years without repeating one.
The Wild Side is in no danger of dying out, like a longtime Minneapolis walking club that folded two years ago. But other clubs may be aging out of existence.
The average age of members in the St. Paul Club has been creeping upward.
"Most of our people are in their late 50s to early 70s," Hunkins said. "People who try us who are 35 or 40 seldom come out again."
Chris Olson, an actuary, recently took over coordination of the Wild Side group from Larry Martin, a hobby historian who has chronicled the background of the group's regular hikes on the website. Most of the group's members are middle-aged, Martin said, but they would like to see some young adults join.
"If we could just get two or three to come at the same time, maybe that would change," he said.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046